Lauren is standing at her closet, naked, all skinny white legs and arms.
“You have too much shit,” I say.
She laughs, pointing to the floor. “Half is yours.”
A hot-pink tube top we stole last year covers part of an old Rolling Stone. Just the other day we’d walked out of Sawgrass Mills with almost a grand in tanks and panties—all those tiny, stretchy, stringy things she loved—layered over our bras, one in every color. When counting the price tags back here, we laughed at the losers who’d pay for what we took straight out of the dressing rooms. Most everything stayed tagged and rumpled on her floor; she was always losing interest, eyeing some new piece on a fashion blog, and I couldn’t take any of it home ’cause my mom had an eye for things we could no longer afford. Lauren called it the five-finger discount. “Another five-dollar sale,” she told her mom, Becky, while wiggling a hand at me.
Lauren stumbles through the piles in a glittery thong, frowning. “I have nothing to wear.”
“Not like you keep it on.” I notice her nipples: the left one is swollen. “Have you been cleaning that?”
“Yeah, but it won’t heal. I don’t know. Caesar was rough last night.” She winks. “I told you guys like them.”
I see Caesar pulling with his fat lips at the silver ring jabbed through her skin. She cried when it got pierced, made me hold her hand and watch, though later she said it didn’t hurt and maybe she’d do the other.
“Is that what you’re wearing?” She studies me, smiling. “You look sexy. Are you nervous?”
I shrug, running my palms down the front of my skirt, leaving clammy streaks on the pleather. I grab a Kleenex from her desk.
“Don’t worry, Kat. He’s hot. It’ll be cool.” She walks over to her bed and sticks a hand between the mattresses. “But just so you’re chill . . .”
“Your mom,” I start to say as she opens the little maroon pouch that hides her pipe.
She nods, emptying a dime bag into the deep blue bowl.
“Becky’s passed out.” Lauren sparks the grass and inhales, her chest puffing out. Her eyes water as she coughs, but she watches when I take my hit. You’ve got to pull it in, she said, my first time. Deep and as far as it will go. When I told her it felt like fire inside, she nodded and said, Good shit.
I’m better now. After a year of practice, I can hold it in almost as long as her, though we don’t smoke much and I still cough. Virgin lungs, she teases.
“Becky never smells it the next day?”
I hit the pipe again.
“She doesn’t notice. Rob was a huge pothead.”
I remember Rob and his greasy, hippie hair. Lauren and I used to steal smokes from the packs he left lying around her house. Lately we’ve been forced to hang around the Texaco Station, flirting with older guys to buy for us. I miss the Marlboro Menthols that Rob smoked, all minty and cool, but since he left Becky last spring, Lauren has insisted we only smoke Camel Straights.
“You think she misses him?”
Lauren laughs. “You serious?” She laughs harder and is coughing again, her face bright red. I wave away the pipe and suddenly she is serious. “She’s fucking someone new.”
The first night I slept over at Lauren’s, she asked me if I’d ever been fucked.
“Yeah, I can tell,” she said. “But don’t stress. We’ll get you some by the end of the year. It won’t be hard— guys love a fresh ass.”
She told me she was eleven when the first one stuck his inside her. “He started earlier,” she said, “just using his fingers and shit. It happened a few times.” I’ve asked her who he was. Even now, she won’t tell me.
An hour later I’m sitting on the toilet watching her line her eyes black and brush out her long yellow hair. I’ve been trying to let mine grow, though it barely passes my shoulders. At least now, it’s straight. Recently, she convinced my mom to let me get a relaxer and have my black hair flecked caramel with highlights. It’ll bring out her eyes. She knew things like that, how to improve anything. Mom agreed because she loved how much Lauren liked me. You seem happier. I’m glad you have a best friend to do things with. Mostly she’s glad I’m not there to remind her of dad, remind her that he’s gone off to California with his new blonde girlfriend and rarely calls anymore, that it’s just her and me now, cramped in a tiny apartment we can’t afford, and if I’m not around, she can skip dinner and small talk and just drink herself to sleep.
Lauren throws me her favorite lipstick, Bitten, and I cover my mouth in the sticky red paste. “You look good tonight,” she says. “Ready to go? This nigga’s gonna want you bad.”
They pick us up down the street in a gray car with windows tinted so black, I can’t see how many are inside. “You sit in back with Javier,” Lauren says, opening the front passenger door. “I’m up with Caesar.”
Javier is two years younger than Caesar and three years older than me. Lauren says the older ones take care of you better, have more respect, and, more importantly, have cars.
I get in and Javier smiles at me, barely moving to make room as I push in to sit. I like his puddle-brown eyes and relax as he hands me a bottle. “Caesar, you were right,” he says, and Lauren turns back and shrugs, giving me a naughty grin. Orange streetlights pierce into the car, making her hair, all wild and wavy, look like it’s on fire, and I wonder if I’ll ever glow that way. She’s got that rock-star ease, every ragged edge falling into beautiful places. Already, I can feel the thick Miami air fattening my hair into a frizzy mess. I comb fingers through it, trying to smooth it, calm the shit down, but ask Caesar if we can drive with the windows up and the AC high. “Broken,” is his only reply.
Soon, we’re going about 110 on I-95, and I take a sip of the drink Javier has given me. It burns, but I swallow more. “I brought this one for you, but I got rum if you want.” I shake my head, another gulp of the foggy, blue liquid. “I like this. This is good.” His hand, warm on my thigh, rubs gently up and down. I feel a rush of tingles.
Before I knew Lauren, the most I’d done with a boy was tongue kiss. And only once. It was camp and it doesn’t count because it was Truth or Dare. After, the guy said I was bad, that I didn’t open my mouth enough, so I didn’t try again for a long time. But Lauren brings around boys. Lots. So many that the ones she can’t handle she passes on to me.
And she’s taught me how to take care of them. The special tricks for sucking them off. Never forget the balls. I still hate the taste, but “you’ll get used to it,” she’s said. “You have to, anyways. They’ll be sticking them in for you to suck the rest of your life. Plus,” she’s added, too many times, “Cosmo says it’s good for your skin.”
Javier kisses my neck and his tongue feels like a thick, wet fish on my skin.
“You smell nice,” he says. “Very nice.” His hand slides further up my thigh. The car stops.
“We’re here,” Lauren announces, clapping and bouncing in her seat like some little kid. “Smash time!”
I finish the vodka, tossing the bottle on the front lawn of the house, and I’m buzzing pretty hard as we walk into the party. Javier guides me inside, his palm on the small of my back. Lauren asks if I want a drink, but Javier says he’s got me. Caesar grabs Lauren’s ass and pulls her away.
The house is mostly dark, save for a few multi-colored Christmas lights strewn around the walls, blinking a little too intensely. Javier says this is his cousin Chulo’s house and they have parties here every weekend. It’s kind of nuts; people are crammed into every possible corner, and as I push into the main room, dancing bodies, one after another, hammer into me.
“You wanna dance?” Javier shouts.
I watch two guys sandwich a girl with a crazy puff of curly hair who swivels back and forth like a jellyfish, trying to please them both. I shake my head, no.
Javier nudges me toward a sliding glass door across the room. It opens out to a small patio with four plastic beach chairs and a table littered in cigarette packs and half-empty cups. Javier says he’s going to get us drinks, so I take the cleanest seat and wait. Even out here, a few people are dancing. Grinding, really, to the music that’s shaking the walls. It’s rap, but in Spanish. Everyone here is pretty much Hispanic. Puerto Rican, maybe Colombian; it’s hard to tell. You always hear about Florida being such a melting pot, especially South Florida, but really, everyone mostly sticks with their own.
Javier returns with a cup of puke-green punch that tastes like a sour-apple Jolly Rancher soaked in vodka. He finishes his drink in one chug then motions me to stand. I do and he pulls me in, close against him. He smells clean, like dish soap.
“So, where’re you from?” he asks.
“I’ve lived here my whole life.”
He smiles and I notice how intently he is watching me. He’s quiet, and I find I can’t hold his gaze for too long. I focus on the tiny mole that is poking out from his chin, then fear he’ll realize and get embarrassed. I look down at his fingers as they gently tickle my bare stomach.
“You know,” he pauses, kissing my cheek.
“I know what?”
He looks at me again and I see the soft haze of his eyes. That look a boy gets when he’s touching you, or you him, feeling only that want. His eyes are drooping, lids falling lazily. “You’re beautiful.”
He’s kissing my neck, but all I can think about is beautiful. Cute, pretty, I’ve heard, maybe sexy once. Beautiful is new. I feel it on my skin and I close my eyes. It is a rush, power. I take the word and swallow it down.
We talk a little. He says he works with Caesar stocking shelves at Publix, but Chulo’s gonna get him a job selling cars. He was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Miami when he was six, just he and his mom. Likes the color of my lips. He tells me that twice between kisses.
As I finish my puke punch, I tell him I’ve had many boyfriends. In my head Lauren is smirking, egging me on. You can’t let them think you’re prude, she’s said. There’s a line between slut and prude. You need to be right on that line. She still called me a prude, but prude-on-improvement. I’d sucked three guys off this summer and, since last year, had five put their fingers inside me. I still don’t know why they like it, though it’s a relief to not do any work. Just sit, legs spread. They like when you moan, when you close your eyes. And after, some like to smell you. One had his friend sniff his fingers when he was done and then they gave each other high-fives.
Pretty soon we are making out hardcore. I let him play with me under my shirt. He’s gentle, pressing my nipples softly with his fingers, though he says they want his mouth. I giggle sometimes and then grow serious and then giggle again for no reason. I accidentally lick his mole and get so nauseated, I think about asking where the bathroom is to either throw up or hide out. But I realize it’s only midnight; Lauren won’t leave until at least two, so what the hell. It’s for the experience. I dive back into his mouth.
I’m drunk, which is good. His kisses are wet and his lips suck my entire mouth, like kissing a vacuum cleaner. I know he’s planting hickies all over my neck—lotsa little ruby stars.
Pulling at the button of my skirt with one hand and rubbing up my legs with the other, he says, “We should go someplace.” His way, I figure, of asking for the blowjob. A year ago, I didn’t even know what one was. This kid at school, an eighth-grader who was like fifteen and the oldest at our school, walked me halfway home and said he’d heard I give good head. I was a better kisser by then and asked who had told him. Were they in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade? He laughed, said damn, girl, then motioned toward some bushes. I think he saw my face change, because he laughed harder and said, “I’m not talking about fucking.” Making a gesture with his hand over his dick, I got it. I told him my dad was expecting me home soon and he was strict, so I got out of it then. But it pissed me off; my mom didn’t tell me shit. She did the whole sex talk when I was twelve, but it was mostly about my period. Asking if I knew what sex was, I told her it was when a man and a woman took their clothes off, got in bed, and did a lot of kissing. She said it was a little more than that. I’m not going to lie, when I first heard it got hard and went inside, I was freaked. But that was two years ago; a lot has changed. I hope Javier’s is not that big and the whole thing ends fast. He takes my hand and leads me into some dark room.
We’re kissing again and he guides me onto the bed then starts peeling my clothes off real smooth, like I’m a tangerine. He is gentle and licks carefully around my nipples for a minute, then stops. Standing up from the bed and looking me over, he mutters. I giggle. “I don’t know Spanish.”
“I thought you were Dominican,” he says. There is a weird pause. “What are you?”
I nod, thinking maybe I shouldn’t have told him. It’s easy for me to pass. Even Lauren didn’t know at first. It was obvious how shocked she was when meeting my mom, and later on, when showing me how to use her new flatiron, she felt my hair and said she didn’t know it would be so soft.
Finally he shrugs, then unzips and frees himself. He stands at the edge of the bed, completely hard. I want to laugh. In movie theaters, backseats of cars, pitch-black bathrooms, you never get a good look. And here, with the moon lighting it up, I want to laugh so bad I have to bite my lip.
I move toward him, ready to let him stick it in my mouth, but he shakes his head and nudges me onto my back. He lies down and I turn my head to face him.
“Your eyes look like chocolate pudding,” I whisper, and he puts a finger to my lips to shush me.
“Touch yourself,” he says.
And he is silent and staring and so I do. I’ve never really done this. Maybe once in a while, alone in bed, late at night. But never like this. His breathing gets heavy.
It’s weird. The way he watches me but not. He is somewhere else, and I start to feel weirder, so I stop. “It’s cold in here.”
Then he’s on top. His jeans, still on, scratch my skin, and I feel him knee my legs apart. Then I feel it. He rubs it over my legs, my stomach, and suddenly I know. I think I should tell him. Warn him. Lauren said there might be blood. But I don’t have time. He’s already there, deep and sharp, and I bite hard inside my mouth. He’s breathing all over, fucking and fucking me.
It hurts. It really hurts and this is not what Lauren said. Right now I want to hate her. More than anything I try but all I can feel are tears on my face so I hold my breath and focus on the collar of his shirt. It is worn and yellowed and I wonder if he wears this shirt to stock shelves. I see him standing between boxes and crates of fruits and vegetables. Rearranging toilet paper. I would never date him. I would never have a boyfriend who stocked groceries at Publix.
After, he wipes himself with the bed sheet then tosses me my clothes. I don’t look at his face and get dressed as fast as I can.
“You know,” he says, just as we’re leaving the room.
He stares at me for a moment. “You were my first.”
His mouth curves into a small smile, not reaching his eyes, and I feel sick, tasting vomit at the back of my throat.
“Black pussy,” he says, laughing, punching my arm like a buddy. “Not bad.”
My head is dizzy, my body all floaty, like I stood up too fast, like everything is far away and swirling and I try to make it to the bathroom but puke all over the floor instead.
Later that night, Lauren asks me how it was. We are in bed, deep under covers with her cat, Zeppelin, between us. “Hot,” I say. “It felt good.”
“I told you,” she says. She turns to me, eyes sleepy, and leans in for a kiss. Her lips are warm and heavy on my cheek. For a second I feel like I’m in my own bed, years ago, Mom sneaking in to say goodnight.
Lauren whispers something, but she is fading away.
Her Smurf nightlight across the room starts to flicker, throwing light everywhere, until I sense it on me, painting my skin a shaky blue. I bury myself further and further under her blankets until, at last, the light dies out.
Monica Lewis lives in Brooklyn, New York, where she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Prior to receiving an MFA in fiction from Columbia University (2015), she studied in the undergraduate creative writing program at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. “Ready” is her first published story and was selected by Eric Boyd.
I would like to see a greater literary presence of work that dares to engage the reader with “dark” or controversial subject matter – more Toni Morrisons – especially in short fiction. Morrison’s refusal to avoid emotionally charged plots has always been an inspiration to me. She dives right in to tragedy, to loss, to despair, to orphanhood, to abuse, to complicated sexuality, to murder, all while avoiding sentimentality. I would love to read more fiction driven just as strongly by a love and command of language, as it is by a curiosity about and an unflinching eye toward life’s ugliness. Literature can be as tough as it is tender, both frank and articulate on emotional matters, while remaining evocative and precise on physical ones. I want to see more flaws and fragility on the page, more anguish of the heart without the hint of melodrama, a lack of sentimentality that in turn creates true sentiment.
Image © Carlos Pechecho via Creative Commons.